Local police may be profiling residents — especially when they’re African American. The evidence? EPPD’s own reports.
By Maria Esquinca
Written for and published by Chucopedia.org in 2016
Rakeem Sams, a 26-year-old UTEP student studying business, swipes the screen of his phone and reads a headline about a death in Northeast El Paso. The article is about a 22-year-old Hispanic man fatally shot by police outside of a daycare because they mistook his cellphone for a gun.
Sams, who is African American, swipes again — “Oh, did you see about this one? They killed a man that was handcuffed.”
While Sams says local police have never physically injured him, he said he’s had negative experiences while driving: “I’ve always been stopped.”
He moved to El Paso in 2006 because his dad is in the military. Because of his dad, he could use a military I.D. until he was 18. “Once I pulled out that identification it was fine,” he says, but when he got older and could no longer use the ID, his relationship with the police worsened.
The first time Sams was stopped and searched was when he was 18. He was driving his dad’s new car, a Dodge Durango. He says he didn’t have a crime record or prior traffic violations.
Back then I was just so happy to be driving and have my license,” he said. “I just remember thinking I know I didn’t do nothing, so go ahead.”
But by the time he turned 21, he said, his experiences with El Paso police had gotten old. “Sometimes they’ll ask, ‘Can we search the car?’ I’ll be like ‘No, I don’t feel comfortable with that.” He said when’s he’s refused to get searched the stops get more cumbersome. “They get a warrant to search the car, and then they bring the police dogs.”
Sams said that he doesn’t believe he’s always been racially profiled, “Some of it has been my fault, I take the blame for the things I did.” Currently, he’s on probation, which means if a cop stops him he can be searched. He said he went through a tough time after he left his home. He was homeless, and joined a gang because it offered him shelter and food, but he is no longer involved with a gang. Sams is going to school now and has started his own business. He wants to use music to create a platform for youth so they don’t have to go through what he went through.
Getting searched is not uncommon for African Americans in El Paso — according to the El Paso Police Department’s own traffic-stop racial profiling reports. The most recent racial profiling report, compiled with data from 2015, shows black drivers are almost three times more likely to be “consent” searched than white drivers, and two times more likely to be consent searched than Hispanics.
A consent search is different from other searches, in ways that are of great interest to researchers who study racial profiling. Before making a stop, a law enforcement officer seldom knows what the driver looks like — or what ethnicity and race he or she is. Police find out afterward, which is when the decision to do a consent search is made. To do one, police do not need probable cause, a warrant, or reasonable suspicion that the driver is committing a crime — possessing illegal marijuana, for instance.
Instead, the officer only needs a “hunch” in order to search someone’s clothing or go through the car — that, and the driver’s permission. Many people are unaware that they can refuse. And police don’t have to tell them they have the right to say “no.”
That combination — of a police officer’s hunch and a driver’s ignorance or fear — can lay the ground for racial profiling, researchers say. Studies find that minorities nationally are more likely to be consent searched than whites.
Racial disparities in consent searches show up both nationally and in many states.
A 2009 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which analyzed survey data from 2002 to 2008, found that Black drivers were about three times as likely as white drivers and about two times as likely as Hispanic drivers to be searched during a traffic stop.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Black drivers were eight times more likely to be consent searched by police in the San Francisco police department, while Latino drivers were four times more likely. However, out of all the consent searches done, police found contraband less than 13 percent of the time.
The traffic data from the San Francisco Police Department echoes a large report done by the Department of Justice, after the death of Michael Brown in 2014. A year later, the DOJ Department of Justice released its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Among many systematic and civil rights violations, the investigation revealed that black drivers were twice more likely to searched than white drivers, but, when searched, less likely than whites to have contraband.
Research also shows that it’s young, Black men who are the most prone to get consent searched. Likewise, a study that analyzed traffic stop data from North Carolina from 2002 to 2013, examined gender as a factor and found that, in the early years of the data, black men were almost twice as likely to be searched as white drivers. The disparity worsened in the final years of the data.
Texas is another state that consistently produces data suggesting that drivers are being racially profiled, and in 2002 a statewide law was passed with the purpose of preventing such profiling. The statute requires that law enforcement agencies collect data on the number of drivers stopped and searched. It also orders that the numbers be broken down by race and ethnicity.
As a result of this law, the El Paso Police Department has been collecting data for the past fourteen years. The data strongly suggests that racial profiling is occurring.
Lemahl Reid, a thirty-one-year-old who is black, believes he is being racially profiled. “Me and my vehicle, sometimes they even call canines.”
Reid, a former UTEP student, says that in the past year he’s been pulled over more than 65 times, and has encounters with police at least twice a week. When asked why he gets stopped so often Reid says it’s because of his vehicle. A black Chevy Caprice he describes as “classic,” like Denzel Washington’s black muscle car in the movie Training Day.
“I guess they think it’s a drug car or it’s a gang affiliated car, but it’s just a nice car,” Reid says. “And then me being black behind the wheel, it just gives them a bigger suspicion.”
He adds that some of his family members are ex-convicts. He thinks he gets searched because the cops run his name and see his mother’s maiden name — the same one as the ex-convicts.’
Reid says the police who’ve stopped him have called him the “n” word several times, as well as mayate, a derogatory, border-Spanish word for black people. However, Reid like Sams, says he’s had positive experiences with the police as well. “There’s a few officers I do trust, there’s good officers,” but “For the most part, most of them are racists.”
“I have good character,” Reid says. “I’ve never committed a felony.” He says he has been arrested for misdemeanors, but they were always been dismissed or dropped. He was arrested once for burglary and fought the charge for two years because he had evidence that he was at work when the crime was committed. The charges were dismissed.
Reid said he was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit because he fit the description of the perpetrator — a tall, black male, about 6’3” tall, 220 to 240 pounds. But the perpetrator was described as having short hair. Reid said he had cornrows.
“They think all black people do the same thing, they all look alike,” Reid said. It’s just, really, really, stereotypical.”
El Paso’s traffic stop data shows consent searches have been increasing. In 2007, for instance, 2.7 percent of white drivers in El Paso who were stopped by the police underwent a consent search. For Hispanic drivers the number was 4.4 percent. But for blacks, it was 5.9 percent — more than twice the ratio of white drivers who got consent searched.
The latest data found that black drivers in El Paso were almost three times more likely to be consent searched as whites.
Despite clear evidence that black people in El Paso are being consent searched in larger proportion than other racial and ethnic groups, it’s impossible to tell whether police find contraband on black drivers at lower, equal or higher rates than other groups who undergo searches. These data are called “hit rates,” but the Texas law that mandates traffic-stop data collection does not require that “hit rate” data be compiled.
Covering and Uncovering El Paso’s Numbers
Eric Fritsch and Chad Trulson are criminologists at the University of North Texas (UNT), in Denton. For several years they have been hired by several law enforcement agencies throughout Texas, including the El Paso police, to analyze the communities’ racial profiling data. Fritsch is chair of UNT’s Criminal Justice department and a former police officer.
Their report acknowledges that minority drivers were searched much more often than whites. But they say that it does not prove it’s because of profiling. Instead, Fritsch’s and Trulson’s report notes that “the disproportionate rate at which African American or Hispanic drivers are searched compared to Whites should not be analyzed in terms of whether or not racial profiling has occurred.” They write that the data required by the state of Texas is too limited to prove racial profiling because it does not show which searches were non-discretionary, and that in the future, it could be proved if the law required the data to show the initial reason for the stop.
Amanda Woog, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and Project Director of the Texas Justice Initiative, examined the 2015 El Paso report. She found clear racial disparity.
“What I can definitely say is that black people are being searched disproportionately to other populations in El Paso, and that if you’re a black person and you’re pulled over you are almost three times more likely to be searched than if you’re a white person,” Woog said.
“If you’re unable to answer the question because of the way that it’s being presented,” Woog said, then the data compilers and analysts “should be breaking the data up further so that you can answer the question.”
Over the years that they have analyzed the El Paso Police Department’s traffic stop data, Fritsch and Trulson have consistently concluded that the department “is fully in compliance with all relevant Texas laws concerning racial profiling.” Chucopedia attempted to interview the two about their El Paso Police Department reports. Neither responded to multiple phone messages and e-mails.
Two and a half years ago, City Council Representative Emma Acosta was disturbed by the El Paso Police Department’s racial profiling report.
It was early 2014 at a City Council meeting. El Paso Police Department Assistant Chief Michelle Gardner was presenting the department’s 2013 racial profiling data to the city representatives, who must approve the report annually before it can be sent to the state. As council members looked at a table of figures in the report, Acosta expressed concern.
She had noticed that, according to the report, 7.5% of white drivers were searched after being stopped (only one driver out of 13), compared to some 13% of Hispanics (one of every eight stopped) and 19% of African Americans (about one of five). “What this reflects is that there’s a higher percentage of these minorities that are being searched,” Acosta said.
Assistant Police Chief Gardner looked confused. “This looks odd,” she admitted. “But I don’t have the specific information to give you an answer to why that is.” Acosta refused to approve the report until there was an explanation for the racial disparity. Gardner said she would return to Council in a week.
Next week she was back with a new table. “The data itself has not changed, only the format of the presentation,” Gardner said. Acosta seemed not to notice that the strong disparity within consent searches remained. She thanked Gardner for presenting the new table. “I think it’s very commendable of you,” she said.
District Representative Carl Robinson, the only black city representative, also thanked Gardner — though he mentioned knowing that some people, presumably black, have alleged they’ve been stopped by El Paso police because of the kind of car they’re driving, the volume of the music they’re playing, and the part of town they’re in (The part of town Robinson was referring to was the “The Devil’s Triangle.” It’s a nickname for the neighborhood near Fort Bliss that is bounded by Dyer Street, Hondo Pass, and Highway 54. It lies on the border of several of El Paso’s most heavily black census tracts outside of Fort Bliss.)
Despite multiple requests made by e-mail and phone, Robinson did not respond to Chucopedia’s request for an interview about the El Paso Police Department’s racial profiling report and about his comments and questions to Assistant Chief Gardner.
Chucopedia did speak with Representative Acosta. She said she did not remember the City Council meeting where she first brought up the racial discrepancy, or the meeting where Assistant Police Chief Gardner returned with a new data table. Acosta said she has not examined the latest racial profiling report.
Chucopedia made several calls and sent several emails to the El Paso Police Department, asking about racial disparities in its racial profiling traffic stop reports. “We are not going to comment on it,” said Public Information Officer Enrique Carrillo.
Rakeem Sams, the UTEP business student, lived in Michigan, Georgia, and North Carolina before moving to El Paso, said the racial profiling he’s experienced here is equal to what he’s experienced in other regions. The difference is that in El Paso it’s not acknowledged. “In Michigan it was clear cut racism,” he says. “Everybody in Michigan knows that. In El Paso they act like it doesn’t exist anymore.”
Gregg Davis, 56, is President of the El Paso chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP. He considers El Paso a tolerant city compared with many others in the US, but he said he finds the El Paso Police Department’s racial profiling data concerning.
Davis believes that EPPD’s racial profiling data should be addressed by the community, and is “the prime opportunity to get together, form a coalition and talk about these issues in an open discussion, in a candid discussion, and solve some problems.”
In other communities, some civil rights groups have argued that consent searches should be banned. Some states, like Rhode Island and Colorado, have enacted bans, or requirements that police get written or recorded proof they informed drivers of their right to refuse a search. Some cities have taken similar measures, including in Texas. In 2012 the Austin Police Department began requiring that any officer who wants to do a consent search first contact a supervisor for approval. To get approval, the officer must convincingly verbalize why a search is necessary.
El Paso’s population is demographically different compared to most of the US: it’s 81 percent Hispanic, 3 percent African American, and 14 percent white, according to the latest census data. Because the community is majority Hispanic, some critics contend that El Pasoans are living in a race bubble and wrongly denying that racism exists.
Radical Soup, a community of progressive El Pasoans who gather to talk about political and economic issues, met in July to discuss police brutality in El Paso. Many expressed frustration and disappointment at the lack of local media coverage about the problem. Others said they were not aware racism was an issue — a lack of awareness that some attributed to demographics.
“I feel like the reason there’s not a response in El Paso is because most of us are Mexican,” said Kiana Tavakoli, 27. “We want to believe that it’s not going to be our son at the end of the barrel, and for the most part it’s not. I think that’s why we don’t have such a strong response here. We don’t live it the same way that other people do.”
A middle-aged, Hispanic man at the meeting brought up what he called a complicated factor. “We have to acknowledge the elephant in the room,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of anti-black racism within the Latino population.”
Shayla Alves, 24, who is mixed-race black and Latina said that because El Paso has been ranked one of the safest cities in the country, some people think racism is not an issue.
“I think people are so hung up on the ‘El Paso is the №1 safest city, that they don’t want to see stuff is happening,” she said. “It’s shitty to be a Black person in El Paso, knowing that everyone thinks El Paso is different.”